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The Rise of Islamic Extremism

The Middle East has a feudal and tribal culture. Personal allegiances in the Middle East in ancient times were to one’s tribe. Most political units in rural areas were tribal and villages were controlled by local chiefs. In urban areas the political unit was an empire where the emperor controlling one city-state would eventually subject other city-states and villages. The arrival of Islam in the Middle East changed everything. The Prophet Muhammad managed to unite all the tribes of Saudi Arabia through war and diplomacy using the sticking glue of religion by replacing allegiance to the tribe to allegiance to Islam.

The moment Muhammad died his caliphate was inundated by tribal rebellions and by the Sunni-Shia schism. The first four caliphs greatly expanded the caliphate but after their death the caliphate broke up into differing sultanates until the rise of the Ottoman Turks who created the biggest caliphate the Islamic world had ever seen. By the time of World War I this multinational and multilingual caliphate was unsustainable and the defeat of the Ottomans in World War I ended their rule.

The defeat of the Ottoman caliphate also ended political Islam in that era. Middle Eastern allegiances immediately reverted back to their tribes. Only certain states such as Turkey under Mustafa Kemal were able to create modern nation-states.

After World War I the rest of the Middle East was carved up into kingdoms by the Western powers under the Sykes-Picot Agreement keeping the old political organizations of tribes and kings. The discovery of oil in the Middle East encouraged Western powers to keep these monarchs in place to ensure stability but just like Islamic extremism in our era the rise of Arab nationalism increased.

The national socialists of Arab nationalism helped overthrow their monarchs and united the tribes under the concept not of religion but of race. Baathism was to create a Pan-Arab Middle East that would create a strong secular Middle East capable of standing up to both the West and the East.

Unfortunately Arab nationalism ended as Arab nationalist governments proved to be too weak to take on the regions number one enemy: Israel. The repeated defeats at the hands of Israel destroyed the legitimacy and hope of the nationalist governments causing them to become military dictatorships in order to keep power. This weakness caused the slow growth of Islamic fundamentalism rejecting both the secular creed of the Arab nationalists and the feudalism of the Arab kings. All this was exacerbated by the rise of the Taliban, the continued fervor of the Islamic revolution in Iran and the funding given by Saudi princes to Wahhabi movements.

The Arab Spring unleashed anti-government movements giving voices to all the oppressed parties under authoritarian governments in the Middle East. Unfortunately many of these voices also included those of Islamic extremists who had waged shadow wars against those same governments for decades. These groups were well-funded, well trained and had extensive networks set up in their respective countries.

Free thinking liberal forces in the Arab Spring were easy pickings for the Islamists leading to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the militias in the Syrian civil war. The most hardcore was the Islamic State which branched out into Syria from Iraq and then back to Iraq. The Islamic State’s unspeakable brutality enabled it to subjugate huge swaths of land in Syria and Iraq. The head of the Islamic State, Al-Baghdadi, wants the eventual restoration of the Ottoman caliphate but this time under Wahhabism instead of Sunni Islam.

The very existence of the Islamic State emboldens terrorists across the world to stage attacks as the existence of the Islamic State gives twisted legitimacy to their actions. Radical Islam achieved a boost as the Islamic State managed to convert itself into a quasi-state serving as a magnet for extremists everywhere. The ideology of Fascism was not discredited until Nazi Germany was defeated and Communism was not cast aside until the Soviet Union dissolved. The power and durability of the Islamic State will continue to give legitimacy to extreme Islamic philosophies.